In 2017 our team released our first full-length urban fantasy novel. After the frenetic pace of finishing, editing, formatting, publishing, and promoting our first offering, we thought we would take a well-earned vacation before jumping into the sequel. We set out to take a month to regroup, but one month quickly turned into four and we learned our first important lesson about writing sequels:
8. Don’t Wait Too Long to Start the Next One
Taking a long break may sound perfect after a frantically busy launch, but we found that it was far too easy to keep putting off getting back to work. By the time we knuckled down and started serious work on the sequel, we had lost a third of a year (time we would wish we had back when life events caused another long break within two months) but more importantly, we had lost all momentum. Rather than the energy we had all brought to finishing the last project, we all struggled to find our focus and the words for this new one. We had simply been out of our world for too long. Not only did this struggle to get back into the rhythm of production frustrate us, but it made us realize the next important lesson:
7. You Don’t Have as Much Time as You’re Used To
First books can take all the time in the world to produce. They require extensive worldbuilding and their authors, especially those going indie, have to research and learn every aspect of the business from plotting to formatting. First books can take years. Ours was about seven years from idea to completed book. But for sequels, you have a much smaller window to keep readers’ attention. Now that you have done the time-consuming work of worldbuilding and learning the business, it is time to knuckle down and make pages. Once readers have decided to follow your series, they expect sequels to come out in a reasonable amount of time (depending on genre often in less than a year.) Like any business, if you fail to meet those reader expectations, your reputation and your sales suffer.
6. Reread the Previous Books Early in the Process
You might think after the number of times you will have read your books by the time they reach readers that you would have every detail of them committed to memory. We learned fairly quickly that this was not the case. A few dozen instances of flipping through our first book to check up on continuity details like eye colors, heights, and which side of the kitchen had the stove on it and we realized that our most recent readthroughs had been focused on the tiny details and we hadn’t read our first novel as a reader would in months. We recommend doing a reader’s readthrough before you start plotting to refresh your memory of where you are in the series. We also can’t recommend strongly enough some form of record-keeping for all of the continuity details you’ll need in later books. There are many products available for this from Scrivener and OneNote to old-fashioned Post-Its in a notebook. Which system you use will be a matter of personal taste, but if you’re planning to write series fiction, you will certainly need to use one.
5. Sequels Pace Differently Than First Books in a Series
As we delved into the first draft of our sequel, we quickly realized that the pacing in a sequel can be much faster than the pacing in the first book. Writing speculative fiction, our first book had to introduce readers to a world substantially different from their own. This required a lot of exposition in book one that in some ways slowed down the pacing of that book and led to some fairly lengthy chapters. As we settled into book two we realized that the chapters were paced much faster with less exposition that needed to be worked in. It meant that the action flew by, but it also meant that our first draft was much shorter than we expected. We had to take a step back and figure out how we shaved off so many words and how to fix it. That lead us to the next important lesson about writing sequels:
4. Your Plotting vs. Pantsing Ratio May Have Changed
Our first novel was plotted very thoroughly, and we set out to plot the second just as carefully. Because our first book ran a little long, we focused on tightening the plot and streamlining the action in book two. What we discovered was that with less focus on exposition in a sequel, it is easy to tighten the plot too thoroughly, leaving you with a problem no writer wants to have – my book is too short, now what do I add? We had to do a complete rewrite to expand our second book. In trying to figure out what had gone wrong we determined that the detailed outlines that had served us so well in book one led to us not exploring the side stories going on around the main action in book two. We loosened up the outlines and allowed ourselves more freedom to explore in the second draft and ended up with a much stronger book.
3. It’s Better to Push a Deadline Than to Put Out Something You’re Not Proud Of
No one likes to miss a deadline. It fills many of us with dread and shakes reader confidence if you miss a publicized publication date. Having said that, there are situations where it is better to push a deadline and deliver a much stronger book for having done so. Many authors have missed deadlines in the past, and many more will in the future. Deciding to delay your book for a few months because you are not happy with what you have produced is sometimes the best thing you can do for a book that has gone off the rails. But, we learned this next lesson the hard way:
2. Don’t Set Pre-Order Dates Until You Have An ARC
Especially for indie authors who publish with services like Kindle Direct Publishing, it is important that if you set a pre-order for your work that the finished book is ready to deliver a week before the publishing date. If you have to cancel or move your pre-order, many companies will penalize you by restricting your ability to put any title on pre-order for a year. They do this to protect their own and their authors’ reputations with readers. Authors who say that a book will be ready in February but then cancel the pre-order to revise fail to meet readers’ expectations, something you want to keep from doing whenever you can. It is much better to set up a pre-order once you have an ARC that is ready for early reviewers and is in its last touch-up editing and formatting passes. This should almost always protect you from letting readers down and locking yourself out of those important pre-orders.
1. Set Up a Process for the Rest of Your Series
By the time you publish your first sequel you will have not only learned a lot about the writing business, but also about your own writing process. We recommend that you take stock of all that you’ve learned and come up with a plan for how you will approach future sequels. How much time of between books is enough? What is your best plotting to pantsing ratio? How far ahead do you feel comfortable publicizing a release date? As with so much of this business, the more books you write and release the better you will come to know your own particular formula for sequel success.
What tricks have you learned for writing past the first book in your series? What has worked for you? What has not been helpful?
A. E. Lowan is the pseudonym of three authors who collectively create the dark urban fantasy series, The Books of Binding. Their first novel, Faerie Rising, is available at Amazon. For free original short fiction and all things Seahaven, check out the A. E. Lowan website.